This riveting new novel by Richard Bausch is a timely tale in this season of war. It tells the story of a company of U.S. soldiers scrabbling up an Italian mountainside in the closing days of World War II. The Germans are retreating, and Bausch's crew has been sent on a thankless reconnaissance mission: to confirm the retreat without being killed. Peace is just around the corner. To die now would be a pointless death.

What "Peace" makes stunningly clear, though, is that -- stripped of talk of honor, duty and a clash of civilizations -- death in war has no point, indeed, no value. The book begins in the aftermath of one horrifically illustrative event. Nine soldiers had come upon a cart full of wet straw that concealed an escaping German and a woman. The German had sprung from hiding and killed two Americans before he was shot and killed by a corporal. When the woman began screaming, a sergeant walked over and shot her in the head.

This death overshadows every scene in "Peace," lending the soldiers' mission a cursed quality. The moment -- the bullet they cannot hear -- waits for them around every corner, beneath every civilian cart. And would anyone care, or even report it? Bausch uses this tension to great advantage. It chisels his 24 chapters down to minute-by-minute essentials, dialogue whispered and hissed across the eerily desolate hillside as Bausch's seven soldiers, whom he brings vividly to life, creep toward an enemy they cannot see and barely hear.

Bausch is best known as a short-story writer, and his skills at compressive drama are on full display here. In a very short time a reader comes to know these soldiers well: Marson, the former baseball star turned infantry captain; Joyner, the bigoted, paranoid, expletive-spewing teetotaller; Asch, a young Jewish man from Boston who responds to the stress of constant vigilance by summoning up bleak trivia: "Between 1600 and 1865 you know how many years of collective peace there were? Years where nobody was killing anybody in armies anywhere in the world? Eleven."

In moments like this, Bausch's perfectly balanced little novel opens up and becomes about much more than whether seven young Americans will survive the night. He uses such rhetorical asides wisely, though, keeping the book's focus on the taut particulars of a forest at night and the soldiers' rising paranoia that an elderly Italian man they dragged from a cart and brought with them as a kind of guide might actually spell their downfall.

These interactions -- coupled with flashbacks of a relationship the soldiers enjoyed with a young Italian boy who brought them wine -- conjures the vast, unspooling chaos of war. All the rules of normal conduct have been suspended. Generosity can be lethal; sleep will get you killed. Through much of the novel Bausch's characters don't know exactly where they're going. Once you start reading this tale it's very difficult to put it down. Peace, it makes clear, is not complicated -- peace is when the killing stops.

John Freeman of New York City is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner.